Cry Freedom

James Beeson explores the surge in demand for ‘free-from’ beers and the challenges their production poses for brewers


For many years, beer was cursed with the unfortunate and frankly unwelcome stereotype of being a drink exclusively for overweight, middle-aged men with beards.

Thankfully, this archaic view is, for the most part, history, with more women and young people enjoying beer than ever before.

However, until recently, little thought appeared to have been given within the beer community towards what one might term ‘non-traditional’ drinkers.

Quality alcohol-free and gluten-free beers were practically non-existent and it appeared as though teetotalers, coeliac and gluten-intolerant consumers had no place in the world of beer.

But thanks in part to the unstoppable rise of craft beer, along with the growing trend towards healthier food and drink choices, this sector has exploded with options and opportunities. According to statistics published by Nielsen in August, UK sales of low and non-alcoholic beers increased by 17 per cent in the past 12 months, while market research firm Mintel predicts the gluten-free beer market will be worth £673m globally by 2020. What exactly is behind the surge in demand for ‘free-from’ beers, how good are the products themselves and what challenges does their production pose for brewers?

There have always been alcohol-free beers available in the UK, and many a designated driver will be familiar with the names of Beck’s Blue and Erdinger Alkoholfrei. The problem, however, according to Johnny Clayton, Head Brewer at Big Drop Brewing Co, was that they just weren’t very good.

“The demand for low alcohol and alcohol-free beers has certainly been there for a while, it’s just that the low alcohol options were so limited that nobody really bothered,” he says. “It took the craft beer revolution and the expansion of skills and demand that came with that to actually get people looking into it.”

“The way we make low alcohol beer is different from the larger commercial guys, who will make a regular beer and then remove the alcohol content. We wanted to go about it a different way.

“We do all of our brewing at contract brewers and they’ve all been really surprised by the size of grain bills, because although we’ve taken out all of the fermentable sugars, we put other stuff in to get the flavour and the mouthfeel. We’re rewriting the rules, if you like.”

Big Drop has certainly made an impact on the low alcohol market since being founded in August 2016. The brewery’s range of beers have earned praise from beer writer Pete Brown, and its 0.5% Milk Stout was recently awarded a silver medal at The World Beer Awards, despite being judged up against full-strength porters and stouts.

“The stout gave us a lot of scope in terms of what we could use – barley, roasted malt etc – to get the flavours really coming through,” Clayton adds.

More breweries seek to respond to the demand for lower abv products

“We tried to think about it not as creating low-alcohol beer but in terms of producing a great beer that just happens to be 0.5%.”

One of the biggest challenges facing low alcohol beer, aside from its production, is the way in which the style is categorised within the UK drinks market. Big Drop, despite being just 0.5% ABV, cannot be legally referred to as alcohol-free, whereas drinks such as Erdinger Alkoholfrei can, as they are produced outside of the UK and imported.

“In this country in order to be considered alcohol free you have to be below 0.05%, which you’d only ever get to by using an extraction process,” says Rob Fink, founder of Big Drop. “You cannot brew naturally to that abv, you’d have to use reverse osmosis, vacuum extraction or heat it, which in my opinion affects the flavour of the beer.

“We are currently working with a group called Club Soda to lobby the government to bring us in line with the rest of the EU, because 0.5% is so low as to be meaningless; the quantity you would have to consume to be drunk or over the limit is insane.”

With 20% of people in the UK now claiming not to drink alcohol at all, the alcohol-free market is likely to continue to grow as more breweries seek to respond to the demand for lower abv products. The market for gluten-free beers, however, is a slightly different prospect.

While cutting alcohol from one’s diet is primarily a choice made for lifestyle reasons, drinking gluten-free is a necessity for consumers with coeliac disease or other intolerances or allergies. Barley, one of beer’s four main ingredients, contains the gluten in sufficient quantities to make sufferers ill or at the very least severely uncomfortable.

The category of gluten-free beer can be broadly split into two different types, according to gluten-free beer expert Sue Cane. “The market is polarised between what is called naturally gluten-free beer and gluten-removed beer,” she says. “Essentially the latter beer that is brewed with low-gluten barley, or barley that has been treated with Clarex (an enzyme also used to prevent chill haze), so that when it is tested it is gluten free. On the other hand there are beers brewed with gluten-free grains but that is quite a small category.”

One of the breweries in this small category is Autumn Brewing Co, which produces a range of beers using grains that are naturally free from gluten such as quinoa and rice. Founder Peter Briggs says that his own market research proved there was a demand for naturally gluten-free beers.

“A lot of brewers in the gluten-free market will produce barley-based products and then de-glutenise them, which is fine, but there’s still very few naturally gluten free products out there,” he says. “There are people who can’t drink the former due to allergies to wheat barley or rye. Coeliacs themselves will make the choice about whether they are happy to drink something that still contains barley, but I think there is a growing preference for more naturally gluten-free foodstuffs.”

One of the biggest challenges of brewing a naturally gluten-free beer is not knowing what the final product will look or taste like, according to Briggs. “We did about 50-odd trial brews before we brought anything to market,” he says. “We needed to understand how the grains worked and how we could break them down into fermentable sugars. There were also some concerns about the colour of the beer because we weren’t sure if the equivalent of rice was going to give us the golden colour you get from barley.”

Pubs don’t really get gluten-free beer; they think it’s something weird

The rise of craft beer has undoubtedly also played a role in the increasing popularity of glutenfree beer, with the use of Clarex becoming almost common-practice at many breweries. However, Cane believes there remains a long way to go, particularly within the on-trade.

“The main problem is that pubs don’t really get gluten-free beer; they think it’s something weird and different,” she says. “But the reality is that a lot of pubs are probably selling bottled beer that is gluten free without even knowing about it.”

“I would really like to encourage pubs to stock more gluten-free beers because it’s really hard for coeliacs when they go out, as the range is absolutely tiny,” she continues.

“There’s probably about 200 gluten free beers available in the UK, but in my experience there are about three you find in pubs which is very disappointing.”

One of the biggest issues is with regards to draught and cask beer, where even a slight contamination of a line can wreak havoc with allergies.

“Unless you’re incredibly thorough with your line cleaning you can’t guarantee that a beer is not going to contain traces of gluten in,” Cane points out.

“So my advice for now would be to steer clear of draught unless it is on a dedicated line such as Vagabond in BrewDog’s bars.”

However, with more and more breweries choosing to enter the freefrom market, the range of low alcohol and/or gluten-free beers available will undoubtedly continue to improve, as will the quality of the products on offer. Much like craft beer itself, free-from beer increasingly looks like it a trend that is here to stay.

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